Engaging Middle America in recycling solutions
Suzanne Shelton
Wed, 08/26/2020 – 01:00

A few weeks ago, I wrote a GreenBiz piece about what Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can teach us about the moment we’re in right now, based on our latest polling of Americans. At Circularity 2020, I’m talking about how to engage people in recycling, and the two ideas are linked together.

The gist is that we can’t self-actualize as the people we want to be if we’re not getting our basic needs met. Pre-COVID, 41 percent of us wanted to be seen as someone who buys green products, and 25 percent of us could cough up an example, unaided, of a brand we’d purchased or not purchased because of the environmental record of the manufacturer. As of late May, smack in the middle of the pandemic, these numbers dropped dramatically, down to 2013 levels at 33 percent and 19 percent respectively.

Shelton Group graphic

In the rock-paper-scissors game of survival, we just can’t take action on higher-level things when we’re worried about meeting our basic needs. And we’re really worried about getting our basic needs met. Worries about the health of the economy and human health far outweigh concerns about the environment right now.

This was not the case pre-pandemic. We were just as worried about plastics in the ocean and climate change in early March as we were last summer, but that concern plummeted in May.

Think about it like this: We decided to take a cross-country road trip in a car with a transmission that’s on its last legs, so the whole time we’re driving we’re worried about the transmission failing. Then all of a sudden — boom — we get a flat tire.

Now we’re not worried about the transmission anymore. Coronavirus is the flat tire and once we can get it repaired and drive on it long enough to be sure it won’t go flat again, we’ll start worrying about the bigger transmission issue — the environment — again.

For now, though, we feel disempowered and unable to do much about the environment. 

For instance, last summer the one environmental issue 27 percent of us felt we actually could do something about was plastic waste. We’ve backslid in a major way one year later: Only 18 percent of us believe we can do anything about it now — and that’s the No. 1 answer!

Shelton Group graphic 2

Not surprisingly, then, we’re less activated on trying to avoid single-use plastics. Last year, one-third of Americans said they actively tried to buy products packaged in something other than plastic and urged friends and family to do the same; as of May, only a quarter of us said we are doing that.

Remember that so much of the outrage about plastics in the ocean is the fact that plastics are in our food stream, so it’s a human health issue. We now have a more pressing, immediate human health issue to deal with — as well as a pressing social equity crisis and economic crisis — so we’ve become less activated on single-use plastics. In fact, you might say that the Great Awakening of our massive systemic issues — spurred by COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd — has allowed us to go to sleep, for the moment, on the environment.

One last thing for context: With all the noise about the economy, coronavirus, politics and so forth, we’re all hearing less about every single environmental issue we track. For instance, last year 63 percent of Americans said they had heard about bans on single use plastic. Now that number is down to 54 percent.

In the rock-paper-scissors game of survival, we just can’t take action on higher-level things when we’re worried about meeting our basic needs.

So, there’s something to be said for continuing to communicate about environmental issues, and there’s something to be said for demonstrating the behaviors you want people to adopt — both have a correlated impact on consumer action. And, again, it will be hard to motivate action on our environmental transmission while we’ve got an economic and health-related flat tire.

So what does this mean for engaging Americans in recycling?

If we don’t feel like we actually can affect the plastic waste issue and some of us have gone to sleep in terms of our habits and actions, what does this mean for recycling?

Are we less inclined to throw our recyclables in the bin because we feel so disempowered and/or worried about the economy and anxious about keeping our families from catching COVID? And are we aware of the issues in the recycling market — that China won’t take our recyclables anymore and that the American recycling system is in turmoil? If they’re aware, does that affect their willingness to do their part?

Well, it’s a good news/bad news scenario.

In the good news column, the vast majority of Americans (80 percent) believe recycling is the bare minimum they can do for the environment, and it makes them feel better about all the stuff they buy. By the way, 77 percent of Americans say they recycle via a curbside pickup service. So they’re “in” on the current system of throwing stuff in the blue bin and rolling it to the curb.

Some other good news: only 30 percent have really heard about some cities discontinuing curbside recycling programs. And only 10 percent say their curbside recycling services have been discontinued.

So about a third of us are aware something’s going on with our recycling system, but the vast majority of us are happy to keep going along with our curbside guilt-assuaging approach to waste management.

And it is a guilt-assuaging system. While roughly half of us have made some changes to reduce the amount of single-use plastics we buy, plastic is the No. 1 material we all think is easiest to process into a substance that can be used to make a new product or packaging.

And while 40 percent of us correctly answer that plastics coded with the number 1 (PET) are the easiest for recycling centers to process, 38 percent of us have no idea which number is easiest to recycle and the remainder of us answer incorrectly.

So, we’re opinionated about plastics, but blissfully ignorant about them, and we let ourselves off the hook for doing anything different in our purchasing because of the current curbside system.

So what happens when the municipal curbside system fails, as it’s starting to do?

In this case, knowledge or awareness is not correlated to behaviors: 39 percent of us have heard about other countries no longer accepting our recycling and, of those folks, 97 percent say it hasn’t changed their recycling habits. Overall, 77 percent of us believe that what we put in the bin actually gets recycled. (It’s worth noting that’s down from 88 percent the year before.)

In other words, we’re still chucking stuff in the bin with few worries about whether that stuff’s actually being recycled.

We can laugh an ironic laugh at their ignorance or we can look at this as extremely good news. We worked hard to get consumers to adopt recycling behaviors and to adopt the idea that it’s the bare minimum they can do to do their part. And it’s sticking: In fact, they’re clinging to it.

We’re opinionated about plastics, but blissfully ignorant about them, and we let ourselves off the hook for doing anything different in our purchasing because of the current curbside system.

The last thing we want is for them to throw in the towel, which is what they’re doing in places where curbside has been discontinued. Of the 10 percent who say their curbside programs have been discontinued, 56 percent say they no longer recycle.

So, if we want to engage Americans in recycling, here’s what we need to do:

1. We need to continue communicating about — and demonstrating action on — plastic waste

Remember, we’re all hearing less about environmental issues and noticing fewer bans on plastic waste and fewer actions taken by retailers and restaurants on plastic waste, and that has a direct correlation to our own awareness and action. We need to keep the steady drumbeat of communications and action going if we want to bring people along.

2. We need to continue our curbside programs and make them really work.

When these go away, we will see a massive backslide in recycling behaviors. This means we need to ensure that our system works, and that what gets thrown in the bin actually gets recycled. Given that will require massive infrastructure changes (and probably policy changes as well), as a stop-gap we need to:

  • Teach them to “look before they toss”: Only 22 percent actually look at the label on an item to see if it’s recyclable before chucking it in the recycling bin. Most haven’t noticed the new How to Recycle label or find it too hard to read. We need a massive campaign on this.
  • Teach them what’s actually recyclable: Back to the earlier point, many consumers feel bad about using single-use plastics, so their tactic for assuaging their guilt is to throw everything into their bins. That means they’re throwing a lot of things in that aren’t actually recyclable, which is rooted in a pretty big lack of understanding of what’s actually recyclable.For example, when shown pictures of various types of used packaging and asked what should be done with them — put them in the recycling bin, the trash bin, or some combination — Americans don’t pick the right answer as often as you’d hope.My favorite is the plastic creamer bottle with the plastic sleeve/wrap around it. 69 percent say they’d put the entire package in the trash can, 22 percent say they’d put the entire package in the recycling container and 9 percent say they’d put parts of it in the trash can and parts of it in the recycling container. So 91 percent of Americans get this wrong, despite these bottles having a How To Recycle Label displayed, telling them what to do.

The point is that Americans have a mixed level of understanding about what’s recyclable and what’s not. And despite the progress made by getting the How To Recycle label onto so many products, it’s just not enough.

We either have to teach them to look before they toss and help them see what’s actually recyclable or, better, encourage them to put it all in the Blue Bin and upgrade our recycling system and technologies so that it all actually gets recycled.

Want to learn more about all of this? Join me at 1:20 p.m. EDT Aug. 27 during Circularity 20 and/or download a free copy of the full report.

Pull Quote
In the rock-paper-scissors game of survival, we just can’t take action on higher-level things when we’re worried about meeting our basic needs.
We’re opinionated about plastics, but blissfully ignorant about them, and we let ourselves off the hook for doing anything different in our purchasing because of the current curbside system.


Circularity 20


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